Earlier this week I was making my way down the mountain to do some shopping and on the way heard an interview of the author of “A Fever in the Heartland: The Klu Klux Klan’s Plot to take over America, and the Woman who Stopped them.“. As I’m leaving snow capped peaks behind in my descent toward Puget Sound, I’m left wondering how I knew none of this history, and more significantly, ”how could this have happened?”
The “this” to which I refer is a mass movement, the KKK’s rise to power throughout the Midwest in the 1920's, but especially in Indiana, and the subsequent terror, oppression, violence, hate, and fear they spread. Horrifically, but no longer surprisingly to me, this rancid cocktail was sold “in Jesus' name” by countless pastors; hate baptized in Christianity. No book I’ve ever read has led to the sort of nausea I felt wading through certain chapters of this book. Burnings, lynching, unlawful seizures, pregnant women dying, rape, spouse abuse exacted by men in drunken rages, the very men who publicly pushed for Prohibition and burned down barns that had a hint of moonshine. No black, Catholic, Jew, Italian, Hispanic, Asian, or white who supported any of these people groups, were safe from the reach of Klan because they controlled much of the judiciary, and police forces, and banks.
If you’re like me, news like this is not only depressing, it’s wearying. It’s a reminder that, indeed, there’s ‘nothing new under the sun’, that “hate in the name of religion” is a tale as old as time. It’s irrational, evil, disheartening, angering… but nonetheless true. The sooner we accept that lots of, to quote Nancy Pelosi, “poo poo,” has been done in Jesus' name down through the centuries, the sooner we have at least the chance of moving toward wisdom and maturity, charity and mercy.
The Good Friday narrative was my other reading today, and the convergence of the timely story of Jesus on the cross juxtaposed with the ugliness of crosses on fire on lawns lit by spineless men in stupid uniforms have helped me see both stories with a measure more wisdom than before. Here are three things I learned:
We’re easily duped. You’d think that people who fled to a new country because they wanted to get away from religious persecution would be the biggest fans of religious liberty. It turns out that’s not true. Once we have our little piece of the pie, the history of America reveals we have been, and still are, often intent on protecting it from the outsiders who, we’re convinced, will pollute and diminish it. No matter whether the “it” in question is a neighborhood, a school, block of voters, or a house of faith. Above all, we need to preserve what we have.
That, of course, was what got Jesus killed. The religious power brokers of the day were so threatened by the presence of Absolute Love made visible in healing power, confounding mercy, and wise teaching, that they (remember, they’re the religious leaders intent on keeping the law, and holding others accountable for doing the same), concoct a scheme for Jesus' unlawful betrayal, arrest, kangaroo court in the middle of the night, and ultimate execution. Healings, mercy, hope, and unconditional love be damned. We will not let this one upset our status quo. Kill him.
Don’t be too hard on them though. Almost everyone, by the end, was shouting for the governor to free a known insurrectionist and execute the rabbi whose crimes were healing, loving, and serving. When Pilate, the governor, declared himself to be innocent of Jesus’ death, the crowd shouted in unison, let his blood be on us and our children!! Let that sink in. An angry mob was willing to let the judgement for this unjust execution to fall on them and their children. It was crazed groupthink on full display.
It’s on display again these days in election denials, conspiracy theories about voting machines, fear and hate used as tactics for building unity, and loyalty tests in both political parties, so strong that discernment and free thought are nearly a thing of the past. Groupthink is alive and well, fed by rallies with bands and emotional pleas that play on fears, offer a sense of belonging and purpose, and call people to a cause. And churches, business enterprises, schools, all have these tactics at their disposal and use them. God help us. It seems as if nothing has changed because in one sense nothing has. It's still in the human heart to be afraid, tribalize, vilify, and give voice to hate and violence.
The phrase ”the whole world” should give us a good pause - The good news is that God does help us. When Jesus is hanging on the cross, he understands how easily everyone’s been duped (Well, almost everyone. There were a few women, and a soldier, who were still convinced Jesus was the real deal). Jesus doesn’t pray for retribution to reign down, or judgement. He doesn’t match obscenity with obscenity, trash talking his way to his demise. In fact, the only thing he says regarding the crowd of insulting “klan like” haters, isn’t said to them at all. Jesus offers a prayer about them: “Father forgive them… they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Let that sink in. Jesus understood that we are, indeed all of us, just like sheep. We’re easily swept into lies. We’re afraid, and so are easy prey for loud talking liars, especially if they reinforce our biases, promise to alleviate our fears, and justify our fear and hatred of ‘the other.’ That kind of rhetoric wins elections and puts people in power who only want power, not the well being of their constituents. Jesus knows all this, and prays that God will forgive the perpetrators.
In I John 2 we’re told that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only but (let this sink in) also the sins of the whole world. That’s a fancy theological way of saying that God’s not mad anymore. Justice still matters, of course, in some ways more than ever in light of this truth. There are still consequences for behavior in this world, and we still reap what we sow. But let’s be clear - like the ad campaign says, (whether this is its intent or not) He gets us! He’s mindful that we’re sheep without a shepherd, that we’ll buy crypto currency and turn a blind eye toward the parts of our history that make us look bad, and know that too much alcohol is destructive and imbibe six drinks anyway, and on and on it goes.
The power of the gospel is that by being yoked with Christ, drawing near to God with confidence because we know we‘re loved in spite of our bent toward failure, we can rise above the self-destructive trends of humanity. We can become, as individuals, families, churches, voices of reason in the midst of the carnage of hate and fear. We can because of Christ. We must because of Christ.
But don’t be naive. Just saying, “I’m with Jesus” doesn’t grant you or me immunity from being swept away in tides of hate, fear, and self-interest. I need to be a disciple if I’m going to rise above the fear and hate and truly be free.
It is finished means just that. I look back on some of the stuff I preached and wrote in my early years of ministry, years when I was more certain about who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, than I am now. The arrogance! The pride! The wrongness, not only of my views, but of how I articulated them. In my lowest moments, those retrospectives, along with a thousand other failures, become my own self-inflicted performance reviews which concludes several degrees lower than “improvement needed,” somewhere closer to “hopeless.”
What a comfort then, to know that when Jesus said “it is finished“ on the cross, he was referring not only to his work on the cross, but to the impact of that work as it would be applied to you and me. It is finished means that Peter, who denied Christ, and Judah, who sold his brother as a slave, and countless Klan members who, once they saw a shred of light, renounced their self-inflicted insanity and walked away, and millions of Germans who disavowed their collective madness after WWII - “it is finished” means that all of us who “once were blind“ can now not only see, but bask in the glow of being both seen and loved by our creator.
All this is predicated on us, like the prodigal son in that great story, coming to our senses. So whether you need to apply this personally, or in your family system, or in your school curriculum choices, or in our national self-perception as Americans, let’s not pretend that we have the moral high ground. The sooner we name our blindness, and sin, and shortcomings, the sooner we’ll come home and find, not a sword, but a healing hug from the father and a banquet waiting.
That’s what makes this Friday, a blend of Klan ugliness and infinite Sacrifice - very good indeed.